HIGHGATE: Farming without soil

MVU graduate experimenting with aquaponics

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By Matthew Preedom, Messenger correspondent

Messenger Contributor

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HIGHGATE – The half-dozen or so greenhouses on H&B Greenhouse and Nursery’s property in Highgate are filled to the brim with mums and other annuals which will soon be flying off the shelves.

In one of the back greenhouses, half of the space is devoted to flowers while the other half harbors an odd-looking system of troughs, water tanks, and hoses. The troughs are stuffed with lettuce, kale, and basil, all planted within only three inches of each other, and growing to astonishing size.

The network of tubes and troughs is a homemade aquaponics system that Ryan Bessette built as an experiment after researching the method of growing vegetables without soil.

“The system uses excrement from goldfish and koi which is keep in two tanks,” Ryan explained. “It’s very high in nitrogen and is great fertilizer for plants – really, it contains almost everything the plants need to grow. The sediment collects in the bottom of the tank and is then pumped to the top of the trough. As it trickles down, the plants absorb the nutrients and the water spills out the other end. It’s clean and is put back into the fish tanks.”

The closed system is a delicate balancing act. Ryan has to make sure he has enough plants to thoroughly clean the water before it is dumped back into the tanks, or else the fish will die. He also needs to add iron and salt occasionally. The iron is for the plants and the salt protects the fish from the bacteria that process the fish’s excrement.

“Everything has to be just right for it to work,” Ryan said. “I’m learning a lot in this process, trying to make it better. Sure is a lot of fun, though!”

Beginnings

Ryan graduated in May from Missisquoi Valley Union High School where he completed the agricultural sciences program. The program’s director, James Messier, said that Ryan was a smart, creative student who has inspired him to think outside the box.

“Ryan’s aquaponics system is very clever,” Messier said. “He has to balance a precise environment and track how the system is doing. He’s been so successful, he’s inspired us to adopt an aquaponics system of our own so our students can experiment with ways to grow their crops.”

Ryan started his aquaponics project three years ago in his parent’s basement after spending a winter on the internet researching and planning. His first crop was a single tomato plant that produced 27 pounds of Brandywines.

“The tomatoes were good for salsa or sauce,” Ryan said. “Some of them were pretty small; people probably wouldn’t buy them at a stand, but they tasted great! Leafy vegetables do a lot better, so this year I planted a lot of lettuce and kale.”

Ryan’s system uses no pesticides and has no need for herbicides. The process is entirely natural, except that his troughs and tanks are plastic. Because the plants are fed a steady diet of nutrients, they grow much faster and larger than those planted in the ground.

“The real benefit of this is you don’t need a lot of space to grow a lot of vegetables,” Ryan said. “I can plant everything a couple inches apart and they grow really well because all of the nutrients are being delivered right to them.”

Plan for the future

Ryan said he is constantly running into new challenges.

“If you’re in it for the money, you better find something else to do,” he said with a laugh.

Still, he has made some money off his project. Ryan sells half-pound bags of greens at his parent’s garden center, which they have operated in Highgate for 22 years.

“It has been very excited for us to see Ryan come up with an idea, research it, and make it his own,” Ryan’s mother, Heather said.

“This is nothing, Brian (Ryan’s father), or I know anything about; it’s entirely his and I think he is doing a great job.”

Heather said that Ryan is still refining his process, but hopes to be able to sell his greens at a larger scale.

“It would just be great if he could sell his produce to a restaurant looking for locally-sourced greens or something like that,” she said.

As for Ryan, he is happy to have carved out a space of his own in his parent’s business.

“Working for the greenhouse, that’s my full time job,” he said. “I think of this like a part-time job. It’s fun, it’s hard sometimes, but I keep working at it and who knows what will happen.”